The Lemba to Build a Synagogue Near Great Zimbabwe

image: Sandy Leeder, Kulanu Coordinator for Zimbabwe

Sandy Leeder, Kulanu Coordinator for Zimbabwe

The title of this article is a mystery to most readers. What is Great Zimbabwe? Who are the Lemba? And why build a synagogue now in this unusual locale? I hope to answer those questions and more in the following article.

Great Zimbabwe is a stone, fortress-like structure, built and occupied from 1100 to 1450 CE. You can find it on Google maps about 200 miles south of Zimbabwe’s capital city of Harare, near the town of Masvingo, and about 450 miles east of Victoria Falls. It is so unique that the country of Zimbabwe is named after it. For the Lemba, Great Zimbabwe is particularly special as oral tradition suggests they were instrumental in building it. Today, the descendants of those same Lemba live in the area surrounding it.

The structure has many unusual features. First, it is built mostly of small stones, piled one on top of another using no mortar. Second, it is surrounded by a 35 feet high stone wall, which extends to over 820 feet in length and encircles an area called Great Enclosure. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, in its center is a conical stone edifice 50 feet high by 25 feet in diameter with stairways leading up to fire pits and upright stones.* Was the edifice used for ritual observance? No one knows.

WHO ARE THE LEMBA?

Okay. Now we know about Great Zimbabwe. Let’s recapitulate some of what we know about Lemba origins. (See Modreck Maeresera’s articles in this issue of KulanuNews for additional details.)

image: Great Zimbabwe Ruins

Great Zimbabwe Ruins
Photo by Tim Makins (www.gnomeplanet.com)

We know the Lemba are Jews who entered Africa from Yemen hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago after some unknown historic events disrupted their lives in Yemen. They were traders, miners, potters and workers of copper, iron and stone. Many of the immigrants married African women who agreed to convert and to follow Lemba practices. Although the Lemba retained memories of their Jewish history, traditions and religious observance, they no longer had anything in writing. According to their historic epic, they lost their Book (the Torah ) during their arduous journey. As a result, all knowledge and memory from that time forward was passed down orally.

The Lemba worship one G-d and don’t work on the Sabbath. They circumcise their males, keep kosher and separate milk from meat.

The Lemba in Zimbabwe live among the predominant local Shona tribe. While they look like Shona and share the same Shona language, they are not Shona; they are Jews who have kept their Jewish practices secret from their neighbors. For all practical purposes, the Lemba are hidden, similar to many other Jewish communities in the world.** In this case, the secrecy is to keep the local tribes from copying Lemba practices, as much as it is to keep the Christian and Moslem missionaries away.

The Lemba, however, are not hidden from other Lemba or from us for that matter. For if we know where and how to look, we will find them easily. The Lemba worship one G-d and don’t work on the Sabbath. They circumcise their males, keep kosher and separate milk from meat. They won’t eat meat unless the animal has been slaughtered by a circumcised Lemba and cooked in a separate pot. At a non-Lemba sponsored party or social function, Lembas can identify one another because they will always wash their hands before and after the meal, abstain from eating unkosher meat and are usually found subsisting on vegetables and possibly fish.

image: Daniel Matare Zifungo, board member of the Great Zimbabwe synagogue

Daniel Matare Zifungo, board member of the Great Zimbabwe synagogue

The Great Zimbabwe Synagogue is the 50-year-old dream of the late Professor M.E.R. Mathivha of the Lemba community of South Africa and is now being actualized in Zimbabwe by his protégé, Dr. Rabson Wuriga. Yes, Lemba live both in Zimbabwe and in South Africa. While the two groups are related and interact with one another, the communities have their own leaders and often have different priorities.

I first met Professor Mathivha and Dr. Wuriga in 2002 in Tohoyandou, South Africa, at a conference on Judaism sponsored by the South African Lemba Cultural Association (SALCA). Professor Mathivha was the fore-most Lemba leader of his day and the founder of SALCA. He was also one of the first South African blacks to hold the title Professor and was a noted leader in the struggle against apartheid.

At the time we met, Professor Mathivha was elderly, although still in full possession of his faculties. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he recognized the historic connection between the Lemba and the Jewish people. Up until that time, the Lemba thought of themselves as a unique African tribe without any connection to tribes elsewhere. In fact, they had kept to themselves for so long and guarded their secret Lemba traditions so carefully, that they were “hidden.”

It seemed to me at the time that Professor Mathivha was worried that the community had paid a steep price for its secrecy. After years of missionizing activities, many Lemba had become Christians and had forgotten their history and traditions. In response to these conditions, Professor Mathivha had researched and written down the oral history of the Lemba from the time they left Israel to their years in Yemen and their final destination in Africa.

Professor Mathivha felt an urgent need for the Lemba to build a synagogue and to begin practicing their Judaism in public, rejecting the secrecy for which they were known. He wanted the Lemba to initiate contact with western Jews but was uncertain who could lead this effort after him as he knew he was getting old and his time was limited. Rabson, then a graduate student working with Professor Mathivha, seemed to him a good choice. Professor Mathivha died soon after I met him on October 2, 2002.

In spite of Professsor Mathivha’s efforts, and the fact that the Lemba have become increasingly aware of the wider Jewish community, they still remain mostly un-known and unrecognized by Jewish religious and secular leaders in other countries. They don’t talk about their customs or ceremonies. They cannot share their prayers with non-Lembas. Yes, they may be more open to interacting with the larger Jewish world, but they don’t want to be missionized… even by Jews. They have had enough with the Christian and Moslem missionaries. As I have often been told, “We know who we are; we are Lemba. We know we are Jews; our parents told us so.”

But even with the positive genetic tests for the Cohen Model Haplotype, the majority of the Jewish community appears uninterested.

DNA TESTING CONFIRMS JEWISH ORIGINS

It is fairly well known that the Lemba share the same Cohen  Model Haplotype, “Cohen  gene,” in the same proportion  as  do Ashkenazi  and  Sephardic  Jewish men in Israel and the rest of the Jewish world. The Cohen  Gene is found in approximately 50% of Cohanim (priests), 5-10% of Levites and 1-5% of Israelites, and in less than 1% in the rest of the world.*** In the Lemba Bubha “priestly” clan, over 50% of the men have the Cohen  gene. Thus the Lemba’s oral history seems to have validity.

But even with the positive genetic tests for the Cohen  Model Haplotype, the majority of the Jewish community appears uninterested. And the Rabbinic authorities? They tend to reject the Lemba as Jews most often under the pretext that they have practiced patrilineal descent, while,  Halachah (Jewish Law) says  Jewish identity  is  transmitted  matrilineally,  by  the  mother. Even though Lemba wives converted to the Lemba-Jewish tradition before they were wed to Lemba men, the rabbis still question whether the Lemba are Jewish according to Jewish law. Could it be that when the first white rabbis of South Africa saw the Lemba, they could not believe them to be Jews because they were black?

What is staggering is that the more we learn about the Lemba the more evidence we find that they are Jews. What we are finding out, and what the Jewish world does not know, is that the Lemba actually practice Judaism, from circumcision to  kashrut (dietary laws) to Shabbat  (Sabbath) and the  chagim (holidays).

So for the last question - Why did it take so long for the Lemba to build a synagogue?

Moshe Musingafi takes a break from uprooting tree stumps to make way for the new synagogue

Moshe Musingafi takes a break from uprooting tree stumps to make way for the new synagogue
Photo by Sqndy Leeder

Remember, dear readers, the Lemba were trying to maintain their Jewish identity living among native African tribes. In ancient times they prayed and held their ceremonies in secret holy sites in the hills. These practices slowly disappeared during the years of European colonization of Africa. More recently, the only places of public worship open to them were churches and mosques. Obviously, the Lemba cannot be Jews in churches and mosques. The few Caucasian Jews who remained in Zimbabwe after independence were not welcoming. Neither were the Jews of South Africa. This condition led to the changes in worship and openness advocated by Professor Mathivha.

Getting back to the 2002 Tohoyandou conference…. It was then that Rabson Wuriga, with the blessing of his mentor Professor Mathivha, committed himself to learning about Judaism, pursuing his Ph.D., and building a synagogue. And through years of perseverance, Rabson earned his Ph.D. and devoted many years to studying Lemba religious practices and culture.

Several months ago, after many years working in Botswana, Rabson Wuriga, Ph.D. in hand, was able to return to his home town of Mapakomhere, Zimbabwe to accept a teaching position at the Great Zimbabwe University. Now he is ready to fulfill the last of his commitments to build a synagogue. In his capacity as President of the Great Zimbabwe Synagogue, Dr. Wuriga has obtained the consent of Zimbabwe Elders to openly return to Judaism. In addition, he has organized a local synagogue committee in Mapakomhere made up of Elders, and has obtained a piece of land from the Sub Headman Chief Tadzembwa, for the building of the syna -gogue.

In Mapakomhere, Rabson is conducting weekly Shabbat services and is organizing Jewish educational projects. All this activity is in preparation for the delivery of a Torahscroll that is being held by Kulanu in Jerusalem, waiting for the completion of its new home.

I can report that plans for the Great Zimbabwe Synagogue (GZS) have been drawn up. Building inspectors are surveying the site. The GZS has a board of directors and is in the process of developing a formal charter. It has an official bank account with sufficient funds contributed by Kulanu to purchase most of the materials needed to begin the construction.

In November, 2011, Dr Rabson Wuriga, Dr Jack Zeller and I conducted a Shabbat service in a Mapakomhere High School room, across the road from the synagogue site. The aged Chief Tadzembwe oversaw the complete service and looked overjoyed. He was dressed in his best English suit and was proudly wearing his Tallit (prayer shawl). I believe I saw tears of joy in his eyes, as if Moshiach (messiah) had arrived.

This is a unique moment in history. There are many Lemba who have been battling against Christian and Islamic missionizing who now want to come out of the closet and identify themselves as Jews. And there are at least a few Jews within the wider Jewish world willing to help them bridge the gap. The Lemba have finally come out of hiding and reached out to the wider Jewish world for help. It is important that we respond, and say we are here.

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* While there are similar, but smaller stone enclosures located nearby, Great Zimbabwe is obviously the most important of the structures.

**See article on the Kechene Jewish community of Ethiopia in the Spring, 2010 issue of KulanuNews

***Jewish men are identified as descended from Aaron ( cohanim ), Levites (from the tribe of Levi) or Israelites (the rest of the Jewish male population). The identification passes from father to son and has been so since ancient times.